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NYT editor described columnists as “people who are paid to have very, very strong convictions, and to believe that they’re right.”

Enrico Schaar points out this news article from 2018 by Ashley Feinberg about the New York Times editorial page. Feinberg writes:

In the December meeting, [New York Times editorial page editor James] Bennet described columnists as “people who are paid to have very, very strong convictions, and to believe that they’re right.”

[A.G.] Sulzberger [now publisher of the Times] emphasized the need for columnists, who aren’t heavily edited, to “have everything buttoned up,” though he allowed that “we are not an organization that [has] fact-checkers.”

In the meeting with Bennet, an employee asked how he makes sure his writers aren’t misrepresenting facts. Bennet replied:

You know we do, I mean at a very basic level, we fact-check our work. So, there is a kind of layer there of having a — but the harder question is representation of fact. And that’s where we’re really, you know, are instilling rules of the road and kind of values for how we approach argumentation and hiring for people. And you know, the first-order value is intellectual honesty. And that means — and God knows we don’t succeed at this every day — but the goal is, you’re supposed to take on the hard arguments on the other side, not the easy arguments. Not the straw men, but the actual substantive, kind of toughest arguments and acknowledge when the other side has a point.

Try to make some sense of this word salad! Columnists are paid to believe that they are right, but intellectual honesty is also a first-order value …

But now you know: the NYT pays David Brooks to think that he is right! Nice work, if you can get it.

Actually, I don’t envy David Brooks at all. To make mistake after mistake, and be too insecure to ever admit it . . . that’s gotta be a horrible life. Every time he writes a column with a factual claim, he’s gotta worry that he’ll screw up and never be able to correct himself.

But, yeah, it seems like he’s simpatico with the boss, and that’s important. If the Times job weren’t available, he’d have to get a job with the Hoover Institution, and that would be kinda horrible.

In all seriousness, I strongly doubt there’s anything special about the Times here except that it has a larger influence than most other publications. It’s rare to see a magazine such as Scientific American whose editors really seem to care about correcting their errors.

30 Comments

  1. Adede says:

    Frankly, the biggest surprise is learning that Tom Friedman has convictions. Reading his columns, I get the impression the only thing he deeply cares about is the sound of his own voice.

  2. Andrew,
    I got a kick out of this commentary. What I like most about your blog is the opportunity to convey your honest opinions and have to back them up too.

    Which interests does the NYTimes or Washington Post represent however. I admit every once in a while each enterprise will feature great analysis.

    I’ve met David Brooks several times at a think tank or Georgetown. I knew Mark Shields better. Shields was straightforward and highlighted that in the public sphere, including media, we produce theatrics for audience markets. Much of that is noise.

    • Sorry for the punctuation errors.

      To add, I thought Meg Greenfield’s Washington, DC was a tour de force. It highlights Establishment culture so well. What I took away was that to get ahead we have to pay homage to bosses and officials. So much time goes into that.

      The real problem is that authenticity and truth are marginalized b/c much of public life is about acting [creating theater] and marketing oneself.

    • jim says:

      “in the public sphere, including media, we produce theatrics for audience markets”

      that’s what sells newspapers, right? :)

      Meanwhile the newspaper business is lobbying for protection with the argument that it’s a pillar of democracy! :) They must be thankful that it’s legal to publish bullshit in a democracy.

      But I don’t see any particular reason to pick on David Brooks. Give me any editorial(ist) or column(ist) and I can tear it apart. Most don’t lie directly like Trump. Most of the time they just ignore the facts that don’t support their case.

      • I read David Brooks Bobos in Paradise, which was entertaining. Otherwise, I don’t read many NYT opinion columns.

        With Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc, younger people really gravitate to them over newspapers. Tom Friedman and David Brooks appeal to a wealthier suburban subsets that are probably over 55. Just guessing.

        Frankly, there is so much mistrust of expertise that few garner the prestige that has been accorded to academics historically. It distresses me when a super talented academic is marginalized b/c commercial interests define what constitutes expertise.

        • rm bloom says:

          Tom Friedman — this used to be the case, and at any rate, I think his heyday was quite some time back — was popular with the “Walter Mitty – Lawrence of Arabia” set: the ones who’d been to Rome and Venice in 1965, maybe on their honeymoon, when you still had to boil the water there; maybe who’d seen the Louvre; but who never made it to Istanbul. But, Friedman certainly had — he was on a first-name basis with every taxi-driver in the Levant, wasn’t he? Just like Oscar … woops, wrong piano-player!

          • Tom Friedman is a great conversationalist. He can talk to just anyone. Natural talent i think. Accounts for success as a writer too.

            Thomas Friedman may be criticized for his reporting on the Israeli-Palestine conflict, as he has led and echoed the views different subsets of Jewish and non-Jews circles at different phases of his journalist career. He took to interviewing former Sec of State James Baker a fair number of times. I attended a few of these events.

            Thomas Friedman’s strength, based on my observation, is that he will acknowledge a very cogent argument that may not have aligned with his own reasoning. That’s a good sign to me.

        • jim says:

          “so much mistrust of expertise…”

          Unfortunately it’s well earned. Tragically it’s possible to be very intelligent and very certain and very wrong.

  3. somebody says:

    Really, what’s even the point of an opinion column anymore? Sure, if the editorial board wants to use their platform to air their opinion, sure that makes sense as long as it’s clearly demarcated, but a rotating selection of people whose only qualification is to have an opinion? Selected letters to the editor? Special guest pieces? Maybe if the only way to get your voice out is to stand on a block on main street and shout it makes sense as an institution, but all these people can just start blogs. As a digital reader, the only difference between a column and a blog is the impression that the column has been selected in some way for quality. But selecting for quality is an opinion and the columns aren’t supposed to reflect the paper’s opinions. Unless the pieces are selected randomly? In which case why don’t we just post them all and I can choose at random myself?

    The function of columns as a public square has been superseded, so I’m left with columns as either

    1. A lending of the paper’s credibility and respect to a curated selection of worthwhile opinions. You can look at this positively — “if you’re like us, these are interesting discussions by serious people” or cynically — “hey, good people like us, here are some arguments to reinforce your worldview, stamped with our prestigious seal.”

    2. A method of generating clicks through controversy and conflict

    My big problem with them is as follows; everything can be posted now, everyone can reach everyone else now. In employing a columnist or publishing a particular letter, the paper IS making a statement, and not just for pragmatic considerations of space. And if they’re going to be selective, they should tell me on what basis they’re selecting. And when people don’t like a column you’ve published, you can’t just hide behind “oh we don’t agree with everything we publish” — you think lots of people are wrong, but you put THIS wrongness in your paper.

    • somebody says:

      Hit send too early — last bit should read “you put THIS wrongness in your paper. That might be a good thing to do, but can you tell me why?”

    • Dale Lehman says:

      One of the more disturbing developments (for me) has been the blurring of lines between opinion columns and news. Fox news and CNN websites are perfect examples – they regularly mix opinion/analysis with news. Although the former is usually labelled opinion or analysis, I suspect most people don’t notice the difference. I find myself having to work hard to see which it is – I try my best not to read anything labeled as such, as I want to see what the “facts” (such as they are) are before seeing how they want to interpret it for me. The problem is that I think much of the population does not recognized any difference, and indeed, whatever difference there used to be is rapidly diminishing.

      • rm bloom says:

        I have friends now, sensible decent people, for whom a “fact” is whatever turned up on some youtube site and pleased them in their prejudice of the day or hour. I argued with them strenuously in the spring about this or that particular. They’d send me links and I’d say, politely, “I don’t have the mental bandwidth to process videos; please summarize what it is you want me to know”. They find that difficult, by the way. The inclination to think something through carefully is a habit which seems out-of-fashion. Any bald statement of one color or another, because some pitch-man or some crackpot puts out a youtube video, is considered a fact-of-the-matter. The mere existence of a *link*, is considered a fact-of-the-matter for the ones who still pretend to some standard of thinking-things-through. But to think things through and then put it aside for the time-being and say, as I often do, I’m not sure one way or the other. What an embarrassment it has become, to have to think things through; to have to study it. I’ve been cracking the books for a lifetime and I *still* seem no closer to clarity on some subjects; but for those whom I see are struggling to think-things-through at all, I have only boundless admiration; whatever be the subject.

      • jim says:

        “Analysis” is the new “Opinion”. It’s just not labeled that way. But hey, the free press is a pillar of Democracy, even if it’s not a pillar of truth and honesty.

        • rm bloom says:

          Well, to be scrupulously honest (excuse the redundancy) when “we were kids” (and I’m not *that* old) we were browbeaten like there was no tomorrow if we tried to lie our way out of something. Of course I learned how to get away with the necessary lies here and there. But you know the thing about it is — all that miscellaneous lying catches up with you later on in funny ways you don’t expect. Really. You look back with a lot of regret; you wish you really had had the courage to tell the truth that time. And the regret is a burden. What do we do to make up for our failings? We’ve all got ’em. Well one way to practice honesty is to practice some difficult discipline; doesn’t matter what; say piano; say West-Saxon grammar. You cannot fool yourself into getting ahead by saying it’s so. That’s why I guess they used to force us kids to learn geometry. But it could just as well be rock-climbing. There’s a chasm down there and you cannot talk your way out of that!

      • David Marcus says:

        Fox News is not a news organization: It is a propaganda organization. As for the actual “news” organizations, if you get your facts right, then the opinions should be pretty similar. Labeling something an “opinion” is no excuse for the argument to be contrary to the facts.

  4. Min says:

    As I recall, in a classroom experiment many years ago Harvard undergraduates were asked to make predictions for the following school year. At the end of the term their predictions were compared with those of Jeane Dixon and, I think, other psychics. The accuracy of the predictions of the students and the psychics was approximately the same, but psychics expressed confidence in their predictions, but the students did not. ;)

    • Base rate neglect operates at multiple levels in many queries. Plus as David Perkins [Founder of Project Zero] had pointed to the fact that our everyday reasoning has much to be desired; and seemed to imply that it was not correlated to IQ scores either. Big debate in the 90s as I remember. Extent of curiosity is implicated obviously. But some subsets seems to have a methodological discipline and fluid intelligence that gives them in an edge toward causal inference. I have seen this in eclectic and quirky families, and I base this also on reading biographies of intellectuals.

  5. John Williams says:

    Columnists not admitting their errors is not good, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what is going on in the capitol right now.

  6. chrisare says:

    With all the woke fact free insanity permeating the NYT these days and costing people jobs, Brooks and Friedman are strange targets.

    • Andrew says:

      Chrisare:

      I don’t really have any strong feelings on Friedman. Brooks bothers me not when he is fact free but when he has false facts. As a statistician that particularly bothers me. We’ve discussed some examples of his false facts on this blog, and indeed for many years he’s been notorious for making things up, misreporting, and taking made-up numbers on faith.

  7. Peter Gerdes says:

    Seems to make perfect sense to me. Their model for editorial pages is basically advocacy. Think of it like choosing which attornies or briefs get presented to the supremr court. You’d want the court to get the best briefs on all sides and those are often best written by people who believe strongly in their cause. You’d want to filter for basic factual correctness but make sure the court heard interpratations from a wide range of points of view.

    The product of the editorial page is editorials not editorial authors. Intellectual honesty consists in those arguments not decieving the reader about what the best counter arguments are or with factual lies. The epistemic state of the author isn’t relevant because that’s not what the product is.

    • Andrew says:

      Peter:

      I don’t know what you’re talking about. In what way is debate advanced by not correcting mistakes? When David Brooks doesn’t correct his mistakes, and the Times says they don’t care, that’s putting a blowtorch to the credibility of anything published on the op-ed page. I’m all for advocacy, and it should be possible to do advocacy using actual facts, not fake facts.

  8. Delfina Kahn-Sue, Ph.D. says:

    Because newspapers aren’t academic journals? Just a guess. Gaining eyes in order to sell advertising primarily, secondarily to inform the public etc., while paying the bills.

    • Andrew says:

      Delfina:

      Of course they have economic motivations; we’ve discussed this sort of thing many times. But I think this behavior is, in a small way, destructive of our society. Similarly, deceptive telemarketers, bank robbers, and internet scammers have economic motivations, but they represent a deadweight loss in the economy and in their way reduce social trust. The existence of an economic motivation for bad behavior does not in general excuse that behavior (and I don’t think that Brooks etc. need to do this just to put food on the table for their starving kids etc.).

      Also, academic journals are notorious about leaving errors uncorrected, so I wouldn’t use them as a standard.

  9. Ryan Reynolds says:

    Eh? Nate Silver has a good manifesto at the front of 538 explaining why he sees the role of 538 as novel, and why other news outlets don’t have an incentive to follow that path. They’re not interested in truth per se, they’re interested in representing the views and interests of their readership, including all of its self interest, identity, and true (or not) views. The NYT values the process in that sense, but they’re not a scientific journal and the potential readership for the NYT to turn itself into that would be slim.

    Put this another way – I pulled together a sports forecasting model which we offered free of charge to a well known sports radio broadcaster. He had little to no interest in it: not because he was an ignorant guy uninterested in predictions, but because his audience cared a lot about that sport but in fact cared little about scientifically analysing who would win and why. They much preferred their long stories and old wives tales which went nowhere, just like the old baseball scouts on Moneyball.

    • Andrew says:

      Ryan:

      There are different levels of not caring about truth. Nate talks a good game and does a lot of good work, but he’s also willing to mislead about the calibration of his probability statements and he expresses no interest in exploring problems with his forecast such as that notorious New Jersey map or his pre-election assessment that Biden had a 6% chance of winning South Dakota. David Brooks is much sloppier and doesn’t seem to care if he flat-out gets the facts wrong. But I think Brooks would rather be correct than incorrect, all else equal. He just doesn’t want to let the facts get in the way of his political ideology and whatever story he’s telling. And then at the extreme you have the purveyors of disinformation, the people who supply the lies that politicians like Ted Cruz use as raw material to fire up, or to demonstrate loyalty to, the base.

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